This painting is constituted of a series of three scenes reflecting aspects of the life of John the Baptist. Centering on the precursor of the Messiah, the artwork concentrates on the Visitation, the birth of John the Baptist, and his mission as the prophet who goes before the Lord and prepares his way. Traces of trimming suggest that the painting was probably part of a more comprehensive presentation of the Baptist’s life, or maybe the complement to a depiction of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. Part of a polyptych or not, what seems to be missing from this painting are the scenes of the announcement to Zachariah (Luke 1:5-22), the encounter of John with Jesus and his baptism, as well as the decapitation of John the Baptist (Matthew 14:6-11). The predella was recently dated between 1450 and 1475, and is attributed to the Master of the Stories of the Baptist, a collaborator of the Alunno from Foligno, who was part of the circle of Niccolò di Liberatore.
The Messiah and his Prophet
Beginning on the left side, we have the scene of the Visitation. Mary, the young and taller figure, enters through the rounded door and is greeted by Elizabeth who prostrates herself before the Virgin, acknowledging her as the “mother of my Lord.” (Luke 1:41-43) The encounter of the two pregnant women anticipates the birth of the Messiah and that of his prophet. It also highlights the beginning of a new testament from God: the beginning and foundation of salvation in faith, namely the realization that there is fecundity (Elizabeth) and fulfillment (Mary) in God. The importance of this encounter is underscored by the luxurious setting. The monumental door framing the two holy cousins is decorated with cornices, quatrefoil ornaments, and a large diamond on the outside wall. Two maids complement the Visitation scene, one standing in the door behind Mary, the other at the left of Elizabeth. The second is engrossed in the task of spinning. The latter activity, spinning, may be a reference to the growth of the sons (weaving) in the womb of their mothers, or a symbol – most probably – of the miraculous or quasi-miraculous generation of the two boys. Indeed, spinning is reminiscent of Mary’s youth as Temple virgin and of Elizabeth’s longing and praying, while spinning, to be a mother.
The Birth of the Baptist
The second scene, separated from the Visitation and John’s preaching in the desert by a narrow panel decorated with punch work, is subdivided in the events of John’s birth and name giving by Zachariah. Both scenes are bursting with domestic activity. In the scene to the right, Elizabeth is about to give birth. She is assisted by two midwives, one at her feet ready to receive the baby, the other standing at Elizabeth’s side ready to give comfort. The second event, to the left of the birth scene, shows Elizabeth holding the baby in her arms (left) while Zachariah, sitting and dumbstruck (right), writes the name of the newborn in a book rather than on the tablet (Luke 1:63): "John is his name." (Nomen ejus Joannes) The figures in the back and foreground seem actively engaged in helping Zachariah.
The Mission of the Baptist
The third scene (Luke 1:76-77) shows John’s personal development and journey toward the fulfillment of his call as prophet and precursor. The child grew and became strong in the Spirit (Luke 1:80). He leaves his childhood behind (discarding of the tunic) and climbs the mountain to pray and await his call from God (“until the day of his manifestation to Israel”). The second half of this scene points to the ministry: standing tall amid his listeners in the desert, John the Baptist points to the open scroll in his left hand, “Vox clamantis in deserto.” He is the “voice crying in the desert” (inscription): “Prepare the way of the Lord.” (Luke 3:4) The two figures with halos, only partially visible, may be the disciples of Jesus (see John 1:35-37; 40) who heard the Baptist speak of the “Lamb of God.”
Predella(\Pre*del"la\, n. [It.]) The step, or raised secondary part, of an altar; a superaltar; hence, in Italian painting, a band or frieze of several pictures running along the front of a superaltar, or forming a border or frame at the foot of an altarpiece.
Polyptych(diptych, triptych) A work consisting of four or more painted or carved panels that are hinged together.
diptych – A work consisting of two painted or carved panels that are hinged together.
triptych – A work consisting of three painted or carved panels that are hinged together.
For more information:
Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God: Art Celebrates Mary, pp. 58-59.
See more on the Visitation, The Mary Page: campus.udayton.edu/mary/meditations/visitation.html
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